Castle Roland

Unexpected Reactions

by Rilbur

In Progress

Chapter 13

Published: 8 Apr 14

To Andy's vague surprise and sharp relief, Nurse Summers was nowhere to be found when they reached the room set aside as an impromptu ICU. He'd half-dreaded her reaction to last night's events. No matter how hard he tried, he kept finding himself in situation where he had to break her rules about not using his abilities.

"Where's Nurse Summers?" Andy asked.

"Elaine needed some rest," Fred answered him absently, walking over to the second bed. "How is she doc?"

Andy looked at Night Whisper. "I thought she had to keep Eric asleep, or Fred keep him from doing things?"

"They drugged him," Doctor Bearnt informed him bitterly. "I'm not particularly happy about it. We don't have an anesthesiologist on staff, so we're guessing about which combination of drugs will keep him down and not kill him."

"Guessing?" Night Whisper asked, shocked.

"Well, not guessing, exactly," Bearnt admitted grudgingly. "We're doctors, we can look stuff up. But we aren't experts in keeping someone unconscious without hurting them, and frankly keeping someone sedated for too long is very bad for their health."

"Getting up and smashing his way out of here would be worse," Night Whisper pointed out.

"I know," Bearnt said, walking past them to lay a hand on Eric's shoulder. "I know," he whispered more gently, as he stroked back a lock of Eric's hair. "I guess what really bugs me is it won't even help him. We all know what's going to have to happen."

Night Whisper grunted. "Doctor, nothing has been decided yet," he said, a note of warning in his voice.

"The boy is going to figure it out sooner or later," Bearnt replied dismissively. "Why hide it?"

"There's no need-" Night Whisper began.

"There is every need," Bearnt snapped. "He needs to understand what is going to happen so that he can come to terms with the fact that it's not his fault."

Andy stepped forward to stand beside Doctor Bearnt. "It is my fault," he said bitterly, looking down at Eric's peaceful face. "If I hadn't pushed so hard-"

"Boy, a psychotic break isn't the result of one evening's worth of stress," Bearnt said gently, putting a hand on Andy's shoulder. "That reporter managed, God only knows how, to get us a copy of the real medical records. The boy was on the edge of a psychotic break for months before they shipped him here. If you want someone to blame, blame his father."

"His father?" Andy asked.

Bearnt snorted. "The man has a real temper problem at home. Never lays an actual hand on the boy, but furniture, clothes, other property, even cherished pet puppies aren't safe around the man. Broke the poor thing's back when Eric was all of about six."

It took Andy a moment to understand. "He hurt a puppy?" he asked, shocked.

"Eric's puppy," Bearnt nodded sadly. "Eric saw the whole thing. The psychiatrist has been working with him for years over it, but the stress of Eric's condition caused his mental state to deteriorate despite everything he could do. He tried, oh he tried, to get the boy committed, put in a foster home, anything to get him away from his father."

"That's... that's..." Andy couldn't find the right words to describe that. "That's just wrong!"

"Indeed he is," Bearnt nodded. "I don't know how that reporter got those records, but I hear other copies have oh-so-quietly slipped into the press in the Senator's home state. By the time elections roll around, I doubt anyone will vote for the sorry-assed idiot."

"That doesn't help Eric," Night Whisper pointed out. "And if he can hear us, he won't appreciate us bad-mouthing his father."

"If he can hear us, which I doubt, he'd be cheering us on," Bearnt argued. "He hated his father. Loathed him. Loved him, yes, but loathed him. If we wanted to get him past this psychotic break, we'd have to help him get past that contradiction in one direction or the other."

"I doubt he'd ever stop loving his father," Night Whisper complained.

"That's not what I said," Bearnt said, "I said we'd have to help him get past the contradiction. Help him understand that he can love his father as his father, while hating the man."

"He hurt a puppy!" Andy pointed out indignantly. "He should be hated!"

"From the mouths of babes," Night Whisper sighed. "How certain are you about this anyways? It's a little too... cliche or like something out of a bad movie where the villain twiddles his mustache so you know he's a villain."

"Reading between the lines, the puppy managed to piddle on his favorite pair of shoes and the man kicked it across the room in a fit of pique," Bearnt winced. "Not exactly the best qualifications for a senator, but not quite a Cruella de Vil level of evil."

Andy shook his head in disbelief. "You don't hurt a puppy when it pees, you just spank it!" Bearnt and Night Whisper stopped talking to each other and looked at him with vaguely amused expressions. Andy thought about what he'd just said, and felt his cheeks began to grow warm. "Not hard enough to hurt it!" he complained.

Bearnt shook his head. "Anyway," turning back to Night Whisper, "any hope of improving Eric's condition would be based on helping him get past, by which I mean understand and accept, the contradiction of loathing the man, and loving him. Loathing his temper and what he does, but still loving the father."

"That's going to be... difficult," Night Whisper pointed out. "That's hard enough with older boys. For someone as young as he is..."

"I know," Bearnt nodded sadly. "Some people have already suggested that we should give up on helping him love his father, focus on the rather well deserved loathing. If the boy was stable, maybe, maybe we could do that. But he's not, and he idolized his father for years before the situation really began to deteriorate."

Something about the conversation started bugging Andy. Night Whisper's words focused the conversation quite clearly for Andy. He'd said 'going to be difficult'. But the doctor... 'We would have to', 'would be based on', 'we could'. Not 'we have to'; not 'will be based on'.

"What are you going to do to him?" Andy asked, stepping between the doctor and Eric. He reached over and took Eric's hand, made it look like that was why he stepped forward.

"The doctor-" Night Whisper began to speak, but Doctor Bearnt cut him off.

"I can speak for myself," he snapped. Laying a hand on Andy's shoulder, he sighed. "There's not a lot we can do, Andy. He's dangerous, a threat to himself and others. And he's strong. Really strong. His strength empowerment is easily at least class four, and his endurance is pretty phenomenal too. He displayed a couple of pretty impressive augments on top of that. Just from what he's already displayed, he's gotta be at least a class three. It's pretty likely he has additional abilities, to the degree of being almost certain. It would be... highly unusual for him to find every single augmentation and empowerment in his initial breakthrough. You can pretty much bump his rating up at least one based on that alone."

"Be honest doc," Nigh Whisper sighed. "Our best guess puts him at class five. He's strong, he's fast, he shrugged off some hits from some fairly powerful augments -- your TK, to be specific," he added at Andy. "That alone would rate him at class three, but Fred could feel Eric's augmentations fighting the lockdown earlier, despite the boy being drugged. Eric has to have at least one class five augmentation, maybe more, and the fact that the only injuries he's got are self-inflicted suggests he has a fairly powerful toughness empowerment. My official opinion is that when everything is weighed and measured, the boy will be a class five."

"I don't disagree," Doctor Bearnt complained. "I was trying to say that he's a minimum of a class four. If we could stabilize him long enough to weigh and measure his abilities, I agree that they would probably come out to class five."

Night Whisper opened his mouth to argue, then shook his head. "Gotcha."

"If we could?" Andy asked, shrugging the man's hand off his shoulder. "You will help him," Andy tried to make it an order, but somehow it still came out a question.

Doctor Bearnt shook his head. "We've done what we can. I'm keeping an eye on him to make sure he doesn't wake up before we're ready, but my official opinion is that we won't be able to stabilize him without months of work. Months that just won't be possible. The government pays BEST a lot of money, but there comes a point when you have to cut your losses."

"Doctor-" Night Whisper said urgently.

"No," Doctor Bearnt cut him off. "He needs to know. Sooner or later he'll learn the things you don't want brought up. Do you want him pissed off because we lied to him?"

"What things?" Andy asked, taking a step back, pressing his butt against Eric's bed.

"You can explain, Doctor," Night Whisper said tersely, angrily stepping away.

"What things?" Andy repeated his demand.

Doctor Bearnt took a deep breath. "Andy, do you get an allowance?"

Andy blinked at the change of subject. "Huh?"

"Do you get an allowance? It's a simple question, and I promise I'll explain how it relates."

Andy frowned. "Well, actually, no. My parent's..." Andy sighed. "They already had to pay a lot for my medical bills."

Doctor Bearnt winced. "Oh, sorry," he apologized. "I didn't think it through, I guess. OK, lets try this from another direction. Are you familiar with what a budget is?"

Andy nodded instantly. "Yeah. We had to budget everything to pay for my bills."

"Alright then, that gives us a starting point. And while we're talking anyways, why don't you take your shirt off and come over here?" Doctor Bearnt asked. "I may as well give you some treatment while we talk."

Frowning, Andy went ahead and shucked his shirt off and walked over to the doctor, who pulled him up onto a bed and began to run him through various stretches and exercises. "A budget is, at its most basic level, a plan to spend a certain amount of money on certain things. You set money aside for medical bills, groceries, and the like. If you're smart, your income is larger than your budget and you save some money," Doctor Bearnt resumed.

"But that's a budget for people like you and me. The same basic idea applies to a government, just on a larger scale," Doctor Bearnt continued. "A government has so much money to spend, and it has to spend it on hundreds of different things. So much money to build and maintain roads, so much money on schools, so much money on police officers."

"What does this have to do with Eric?" Andy demanded.

"BEST has a budget too. The government has provided BEST with a certain amount of money, and told BEST that it has to make that money cover various things," Doctor Bearnt shrugged. "BEST has money to deal with accidents, BEST has money to deal with new augmentations emerging, BEST has money for medical bills, BEST has money for training. But it's still a budget; can you spend more money on groceries than your budget allows?"

"No," Andy shrugged, making a face. "We had to eat a lot of tuna instead," he added unhappily.

Doctor Bearnt echoed the face. "I don't like tuna either," he added in an almost conspiratorial whisper. "Anyway, just like you couldn't spend too much on groceries, BEST can't spend too much on anyone one thing. They have to leave enough money in the bank to handle other emergencies."

"Think about the amount of damage Eric caused to the restroom, and how much damage the fight across the grounds did. BEST has to pay to fix all that," Doctor Bearnt explained gently. "If Eric wakes up and smashes his way out of the room, BEST has to pay for that. BEST even has to pay for the nurses that apply the medicine, and the medicine that's keeping him asleep. It probably doesn't seem like that much right now, and honestly it isn't if you look at it in isolation."

"The problem becomes how do we treat Eric, how do we make him better. Unless we keep Fred on hand, we don't dare let him wake up. So, if we try to put him in a mental hospital, we have to keep Fred and someone like Nurse Summers on hand there to keep him under control."

Andy shrugged. "OK, how does that connect to budgets?"

"Making Fred and Nurse Summers stay there would be expensive. They both pull very healthy salaries," Doctor Bearnt explained. "On top of that, they both do very important jobs already. Nurse Summers is frequently called into various local hospitals when a surgery is needed, but more traditional sedatives might be dangerous. Fred is one of the best agents we have at helping a new augment who needs to learn control, helping them to control their powers until they get into a location where it's safe for accidents to occur."

Andy wasn't stupid. "So if they keep both of them with Eric, other people can get hurt."

"Other people might even die," Doctor Bearnt nodded sadly. "With enough cash, you could probably find other augments who could do the job, and repair the damage when a mistake gets made. But we were discussing budgets."

"They don't have enough money," Andy said, horrified. "That's the problem, isn't it? The government can't afford to do it."

"Unfortunately, that's completely accurate. The government has a lot of things it's required to do. It pays a lot of money to help deal with Augments, but it can only afford so much. And trying to stick Eric in a mental hospital would cost too much. Sure, we could cut back in other areas, but then other people would pay the cost. Kids like you might not get sent to facilities like this; we might not catch an augment in time to avoid someone getting hurt. The costs would mount."

"But, but..." Andy shook his head. "What are they going to do to him? Kill him?"

"No," Doctor Bearnt said firmly. "Absolutely not. In some ways, that might be better for Eric. He hurts himself every time he uses his powers, and he's not sane enough to understand that. He's going to cause himself a lot of pain before things are through. But there are some very firm, very strict rules that prevent that, and for good reason. Right now we have a very firm line that we never, ever, ever kill an augment because he's an augment. Eric's mental state isn't a reason to kill him, so being an augment doesn't make it one. Another alternative was derived."

"Another alternawhat was what?" Andy asked, confused.

Doctor Bearnt shook his head. "Sorry. Alternative, as in another option, another choice we can make. An alternate course of action. And the second word was derived, meaning created. So the people in charge of these things came up with another option."

"What?" Andy asked.

"A form of exile, and imprisonment," Doctor Bearnt sighed. "There are small islands out in the Pacific, so far from any other landmass that if you go there, you're stuck. No wood to make boats, and the area is highly patrolled. Food is delivered, but other than people like Eric, no one ever goes there. And no one, not a single person, ever leaves. It's an automatic life sentence. It has to be; the only way to keep the area controlled is for all transfers to be one way. In. Trying to pull anyone out would be an invitation for someone to escape."

Andy turned to look at Eric. Asleep, the boy looked calm, peaceful. Almost angelic. Nothing could be more unlike the twisted, demented rage that had distorted the boy's face past recognition in the bathroom.

Andy remembered watching Eric's hand explode. A reaction of rage when Andy had managed to defend himself. Andy felt his own anger build. He didn't understand all the big words the doctor had thrown around. He didn't understand why Eric's father had done the things he'd done, or how they'd caused Eric to go off so badly. But he did understand that Eric had exploded in rage because of his father's actions. Because Eric's father had abused him.

Andy felt his own anger rise. And while he'd heard the word 'rage' used as if it were distinct from anger, in a sudden flash of understanding, he finally understood the difference. This wasn't anger he felt. Anger was too weak, too mild. This was rage. Something too deep, too abiding to be termed mere 'anger'.

Suddenly, Andy twisted around. Angela was still unconscious on another bed, but he knew, he just knew she was angry at him. No, not angry. She wanted to hurt him. She wanted to hurt everyone there.

Except... except it wasn't her. It was... it was...

Andy didn't know what it was, but it touched his rage and siphoned it away. He reached out with his mind and touched the siphon. It was almost like when he reached out to use his powers, but subtly different. So subtly different. And when he tried to reach out further, he stopped, dead. He could only touch the siphon, not follow it back to it's source. But he could sense, distantly, that it wasn't just siphoning from him.

Ignoring the doctor for a moment, he took a few steps and placed himself squarely between Eric and Angela, and suddenly it wasn't just a distance sense. It was like roaring river, a cascade of anger and rage and hatred pouring through restricted channel just inches away. Angela was pulling all the anger, all the rage, all the hurt and the need out of Eric. Except it wasn't her. Andy was certain of it. She was too... too nice to be the malevolent force he felt glaring at him. The malevolent force that seemed to grow stronger by the moment. It wasn't just siphoning the anger and rage away, Andy understood in a flash. He couldn't do anything about the flood of power the presence was pulling from Eric, but Andy snarled angrily as he yanked his own rage away from it. It could eat Eric, maybe, but Andy wasn't about to let the thing eat him. He wouldn't let this thing diminish what he felt just to strengthen itself. And if he could stop it, he wouldn't let it have Eric either.

Andy didn't know how to fight this, but he focused hard and touched his powers, hoping that something new might show up. But just as he prepared to throw his will into the fray, he paused.

His anger was just. His anger was right. His anger was a part of him he wasn't prepared to give up. It strengthened him, it didn't break him.

Andy stepped aside, and felt the rush of anger vanish. It was still there, he was sure, but he no longer sensed it. He'd yanked his own anger out of the presence's grasp, and with that, he couldn't sense a thing. Not without being in the path of it.

"What just happened?" Doctor Bearnt asked, concerned.

"Huh?" Andy asked, looking over at the doctor.

"What's up Doctor?" Night Whisper asked, wandering back over.

"Andy just did something weird, and I'd like to know why," Doctor Bearnt asked. "For a moment, he was... elsewhere, mentally speaking. Didn't even hear me ask the question the first time."

"Andy?" Night Whisper asked.

"I..." Andy shook his head. "You wouldn't believe me."

"You're a brand new augment, you'd be surprised what I believe," Night Whisper told him, firmly. "Report." It was the first time Andy had ever had that tone of voice directed at him. It was almost similar to when his mother used The Tone, displaying her authority with The Tone of voice only a mother could use, to scold or to order. But this was different. Stronger of will and power, yet weaker because it wasn't something born of the close relationship between mother and child.

But he had about as much choice over whether to obey it as he did when his mother gave him orders using The Tone. "I was thinking about Eric, what had happened to him, and I got angry. Really angry. I've heard the word 'rage' before, studied what it meant in school, but..." Andy shook his head. "I was feeling real rage, for the first time. And as it grew, I felt... I felt..." Andy struggled for a moment to explain it. "Something touched me. It touched my rage, and started pulling it away. Started eating it. And it didn't like me. It wants to hurt me. It wants to hurt all of us."

"Why did you move?" Doctor Bearnt asked. "It looked like-" Doctor Bearnt shook his head.

"I put myself between that... that... thing and Eric," Andy shrugged. "Not sure why I did that, but suddenly... I couldn't reach past where it was eating me, but I could feel it. If what it was pulling from me was a small trickle, it was pulling a giant river from Eric. Eating huge chunks of him. I was a snack, a mere afterthought, compared to what it pulled from Eric. What it's pulling from him."

Night Whisper moved to stand there. "I don't feel..." He frowned. "You said you felt it from your rage." He closed his eyes. "Rage, hrm. My parent's make me angry, but... not rage, not anymore. I've dealt with what they did to me." He took a sudden, deep breath. "Oh, my, God." He took a step away.

"Why did it look like you stepped between Eric and Angela?" Doctor Bearnt asked. "It looked like you were getting ready to defend him from her."

"It's... it's..." Andy shook his head. "It's not her. But it's coming from her. It's... it's in her?" He shook his head. "I dunno. Or maybe it's past her?"

Doctor Bearnt and Night Whisper both looked at the wall. "I'll have someone run a sweep in that direction, but while I felt the rush from Eric, I didn't really feel any directionality of it. It was just... the sense of something huge. Almost sensed. Almost not sensed. Right on the edge of my own rage. If I hadn't been looking for it, it would have been invisible." He looked at Andy. "Which begs the question of how you sensed it. You said you sensed hostility, which..." Night Whisper trailed off thoughtfully.

"For now, just in case it is in Angela, we should probably move her elsewhere," Doctor Bearnt suggested.

"No!" Andy exclaimed. Fred looked up from Angela's bed on the other side of the room. "Don't you guys get it? It's pulling the anger away. It's eating his anger!"

Night Whisper and Doctor Bearnt looked at each other, confused. "You made it sound like this feeding was bad."

"For me!" Andy shouted. "Think about it! Eric is too angry!"

Doctor Bearnt looked taken aback. "You think we can treat Eric by... by... letting this thing feed?"

"YES!" Andy screamed, glad they finally got it. "It'll eat up the anger until Eric is happy again!"

Night Whisper and Doctor Bearnt exchanges glances. "I've heard worse ideas," Doctor Bearnt shrugged, as Fred got up and starting walking over.

"I'm not so sure about that," Night Whisper said, walking over to look at Angela. "Sure, if it works, it's great that this thing can help Eric. But generally, the more you eat, the bigger you get."

Doctor Bearnt looked confused for a moment. "Oh dear."

"Yeah," Night Whisper chewed his lip. "I doubt this thing, whatever it is, is doing it to heal Eric. And if Andy says it means to hurt us, I believe him. So do we really want to make it stronger? Oh," Night Whisper turned to look at Andy. "You said you can feel that it wants to hurt us?"

"Yeah," Andy nodded.

"And you felt a directionality to it, you knew the direction it came from?"

Andy nodded.

"Walk over to that side of the room, and point at it while you walk," Night Whisper suggested.

Andy did so, his arm pointing invariably straight at Angela the whole time. "Not definitive, but strongly suggestive," Night Whisper nodded. "Andy, you and I are taking a break. Doctor Bearnt, finish briefing Silver Star on what we've figured out so far."

"But-" Andy began to protest.

"No buts. You aren't staying near this thing until we have a better grip on it. Maybe it's helping Eric, maybe it's not, but you are our only source of knowledge about it. I want you away from it just in case it gets any ideas about trying to eat you up completely. Now march!"

The last two words were said using The Tone, and Andy shrugged as he obeyed.

"So, Andy, why aren't you using canes today?" Night Whisper asked. "I know that you're out of the wheelchair, but shouldn't you at least have a cane?"

Andy shrugged "Doctors said I'm responding well to treatments."

"Yeah, but from what I heard-" Night Whisper shook his head. "Never mind. I must have misunderstood. Anyway, I asked the doctor's to keep the gym cleared today."

"The gym?" Andy asked.

"Yes. In addition to multiple rehab rooms equipped with all sorts of rehab equipment, this facility has a fine gymnasium attached. You can run around all you want," Night Whisper nodded. "They even have some basketballs and, shockingly, some basketball hoops."

"Basketball?" Andy smiled. "I haven't played basketball in... forever!"

Night Whisper smiled. "Oh really? I'm not that great a player, but I suppose I could give you a challenge. Here we are." Night Whisper turned and opened a door.

Andy could almost do somersaults at the thought of playing basketball again. He'd never been all that good at the game, honestly, but he could dribble a ball -- more or less.

"First rule," Night Whisper told Andy as he closed the door behind them, "what happens in the gym, stays in the gym."

"Oh-kay..." Andy replied, confused.

Night Whisper sighed. "Sheesh kid. How old are you, six?"

Andy spun around and glared. "Twelve, going on thirteen!"

Nigh Whisper laughed. "I see," he forced his chuckles back. "In that case, the second rule is that you aren't to use your powers to cheat." Night Whisper's grin grew wider. "Or rather, if I catch you cheating, you run five laps."

"OK," Andy shrugged. "It's nice to be able to run again, but I won't cheat."

Nigh Whisper laughed. "Oh, I love the innocent ones," he grinned. "So precious."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Andy asked.

Night Whisper vanished. One moment there, the next evaporated into thin air without a sound. "Oh, nothing," Night Whisper told him.

Andy spun around on his heel just in time to catch the basketball tossed his way. "Let's just play half court, since it's just the two of us," Night Whisper suggested, teleporting under a hoop. "What you waiting for?"

Andy began dribbling the ball over, trying to get the feel of the process again. It wasn't exactly easy, and it had been a long time since he'd last tried to do it.

Suddenly, Night Whisper smacked the ball out of his hands. "Move it!" the man ordered, running ahead.

Andy, taken completely by surprise, blinked for a moment before chasing after. Unfortunately, Andy's outright sprint was slower than Night Whisper's dribbling run, and the BEST agent quickly took the first point in their game.

"I'm going to take it a little easy on you since you're a bit out of shape," Night Whisper told Andy, "but that doesn't mean I'm going to hand victory to you on a platter." Night Whisper turned around and faced Andy, face serious. "Whatever you're doing, you have to give it one hundred percent. It doesn't matter how important you think it is, or how tired you are, or how hard your day is. If something is worth doing, it's worth doing right. So if we're going to play, play! Don't just stand there taking your sweet time!"

"I was trying to practice dribbling!" Andy complained. "I haven't done it in years!"

Night Whisper passed the ball to Andy, hard. "Then practice. Just remember to keep it away from me."

What followed was painful and humiliating, but mercifully quick.

Andy began dribbling the ball and moving forward, and Night Whisper darted out and batted the ball out of his reach, taking control of it and firing it contemptuously at the basket. Belying his claims of incompetence, the ball swished through in a perfect shot. The man teleported under the basket and caught the ball as it fell, tossing it back at Andy.

"Move like you mean it," he ordered.

This time Andy managed to get nearly three steps away from the middle of the court before Night Whisper tried to take the ball. Expecting the contemptuous slap, Andy turned and tried to block the man off. That bought him an extra bounce before the man reached around and took the ball anyways, taking advantage of his superior reach to bounce the ball between Andy's legs with an outstretched arm.

Andy whirled around as Night Whisper took a step away and tried to take the ball back.

Night Whisper just sidestepped the attempt, stopped, and then threw the ball through the hoop again.

"Better, but there's room for improvement," Night Whisper announced as he caught the ball. "Again," he ordered, throwing the ball at Andy hard enough to sting.

This time Andy managed nearly a full four seconds of dribble before Night Whisper was on him. He tried to block the man with the tactic that had worked last time, but Night Whisper anticipated it, turning to the side a second before Andy did it himself.

"You need to react to my movements, not anticipate them," Night Whisper pointed out as he made another shot. "Anticipating is nice, but what happens when you anticipate wrong. Move with me, don't guess what I'm going to do next."

This time Night Whisper didn't bother playing nice. Instead of reaching around Andy, he just applied his shoulder and pushed past him.

"That's cheating!" Andy complained as he got up.

"Really? I don't remember that in the rules," Night Whisper told Andy. "What happens in the gym, stays in the gym. And if I catch you using your powers to cheat, you run five laps."

Andy's fist clenched for a moment as he watched yet another contemptuous shot go flying through the air. But for all Night Whisper's accuracy, the man's eyes weren't on the net for more than a second. He was watching Andy, closely. And however pissed he seemed, Andy was certain Night Whisper wasn't actually angry with him.

So why was he acting like a giant dick? Andy had run into bullies who were less subtle-


"You're testing me, aren't you?" Andy asked.

This time, when the ball came flying in, Andy reached out and slowed it down a little before catching it. "Aren't you?" he repeated.

Night Whisper grinned. "I told them you were too smart for that trick. But yes, it was another test."

Andy just shook his head. "What the heck, man?" he complained. "I didn't smear Eric across the wall earlier, and you're still testing me?"

Night Whisper shrugged. "Trust, but verify. We trust you, but we have to keep checking. For one thing, who knows what will help bring out a new augmentation. Preferably before, as you put it, you smear someone across a wall."

It made sense, but it still stung. A lot. "You think I'm just like Eric or something?" Andy demanded angrily.

"No, I think you're nothing at all like Eric," Night Whisper smiled. "You're smart, courteous, good tempered, and disciplined. Well, for a kid anyway."

"I'm not a kid, I'm twelve! Going on thirteen!" Andy shouted in frustration.

"And I'm thirty-two," Night Whisper shot back. "You're a kid to me. Not even half my age. Closer to a third my age, really. So. 'Kid'. Deal with it."

Andy took a long, hard breath and brought his temper back under control. "Fine then," he said. "So, did you 'verify' yet?"

"Well enough for now," Nigh Whisper nodded. "But I was actually killing two birds with one stone. You're out of shape, and you need to work on it. So just because you've figured out one prong of my test, doesn't mean you're going to get off on the other. So. Let's play. Just remember the rules. What happens in the gym, stays in the gym, and if I catch you using your powers to cheat you give me five laps."

This time Andy caught it. The second rule wasn't that he couldn't use his powers to cheat, it was just a penalty for being caught. He dribbled forward, and when Night Whisper tried to steal the ball away he gave the slightest of brushes to the ball, slowing it just enough in it's bounce that Night Whisper missed it completely. As he stepped past Night Whisper he almost lost control of the ball, the regular pattern of the dribble broken, but he just barely managed to recover it as Night Whisper came up from behind him. This time he twitched the ball sideways to his other hand, needing only the slightest touch of push to control it during the transfer.

Maybe Night Whisper let him do it, or maybe Night Whisper wasn't expecting him to improve quite this fast, but he actually managed to make it close enough to the net to risk trying a shot. Andy took the ball in both hands as he crouched down, feeling oddly heavy as he tightened his body up. Like a spring uncoiling he straightened explosively leaping up to add energy as he threw the ball up towards the net. It was slow, hard, his years of disability making him clumsy and incapable, but he felt his body straighten even as it screamed in complaint at the sudden strain. He felt like his weight had doubled even as his hands finally reached the apex of their trajectory, throwing the ball up with all his force.

The force that should have carried the ball up and over the hoop barely carried it halfway there before it came down, bouncing hard on the ground. Andy looked at it, dejected, then heard a loud twang overhead. Looking up, he saw the basketball hoop leaning crazily forward.

"Andy, stop!" Night Whisper ordered, and Andy froze, realizing that the weight he felt wasn't due to his being out of shape. He didn't just feel heavier, he could feel the ground give under his suddenly magnified weight. His legs were trembling with the effort required to keep him upright, and then another loud twang drew his attention upward again.

With a hard push he deflected the falling backboard sideways, away from himself. It struck the gym floor and shattered, sending small shards flying everywhere. Andy raised his hands up in reflex to cover his face, the same reflex summoning another push to guide the splinters up over his body.

"Ooops?" he said when the rattling boom stopped echoing through the room. As he waited for the other shoe to drop, he felt the weight begin to increase further. As he realized that he began to tighten up more in an effort to hold up under the weight, only to feel the weight increase faster the more he tightened.

"Andy! Andy!" Night Whisper shouted, groaning as he struggled to walk over. Andy struggled to turn his head, even as the weight began to make his bones creak and groan, threatening to break at any moment if he couldn't bring the runaway reaction under control.

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